Travels with Ella

“Do you know me?” Ella, my soon to be fifteen-year-old granddaughter replied when I asked if she wanted to go on the Niagara Falls Ferris wheel. I was relieved. I hated Ferris wheels and was happy to skip the ride and most of the cheesy boardwalk attractions down Clifton Hill. Instead, we were soaked on the Hornblower boat ride, aka Maid of the Mist, and reveled in the spray while standing on the balcony overlooking Horseshoe Falls.

Rather than stay at a hotel, we bunked out at my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins on my father’s side of the family tree. Ella tried Poutine, a notorious Canadian specialty made of French fries, cheese, and brown gravy. She bought a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey with her favorite player’s name and number and attended a Shaw Festival performance of The Importance of Being Ernest.

Up for anything, excluding Ferris wheels, she was the perfect travel companion—appreciative, considerate, and helpful. Her Canadian relatives were not so different from us, except that they were the sole Catholics in a large Jewish clan. She wasn’t faced with a huge cultural challenge. This changed when we went to Toronto for the last two days of our trip.

In Toronto, we stayed with my Tibetan friends. Just the wafting incense that greeted us as we walked into their modest home was enough to tell Ella we weren’t in Kansas. Thangkas and quotes from the Dalai Llama hung on every inch of the walls, and Tibetan yak tea steamed in the kettle. Sonam, my friend, had prepared momos (Tibetan dumplings) and cream of mushroom soup. Despite protesting that we had already eaten lunch on the drive to Toronto from the Falls, plates of momos were set before us and expectations for Ella were high. Ella crammed a half dozen momos down into her full belly, smiling and complimenting the cook the whole time. In the evening, we rolled prayer-wheels at the local monastery for loved ones facing surgery and even death. From there, we joined in the Wednesday night Tibetan dancers as they whirled and twirled in a huge circle of traditionally dressed men, women, boys, and girls. Everybody spoke to Ella in English, albeit in Tibetan to each other. Ella, who learned to read at four years of age because she wanted to know what the billboards said, was frantic about not understanding them.

Ella stayed the night with Gayki, the eldest daughter, in her new one-bedroom condominium. Gayki and her fiancée Tashi had moved in barely a week before. They insisted that Ella take their bed and they would bunk on the couch. Amazed at their welcome and unable to resist, she had a dose of Asian hospitality . . . so different from her experiences in America.

Ella and I have traveled together since she was seven. In the early years, her mother made me tether her to me via a leash attached to our wrists. Happily, that is no longer necessary, and hopefully Ella and I will share more adventures in the years to come.

I wouldn’t change my grandchildren for the world. But I wish I could change the world for my grandchildren.” Anonymous quote.

Cicadas and Tree Frogs

The cicadas are particularly loud tonight, especially when joined by a chorus of tree frogs. Perhaps their song was louder because my evening walk started later in an attempt to avoid the muggy heat of Georgia. While I walked, my thoughts turned to the Warren Court, a liberal court diametrically opposite the current Roberts Court. I even remember the “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards that lined the highways, mainly those on the roads headed south.

The Warren Court did not overturn a precedent per se, but it did erode a long-standing pillar of the American sense of justice: no criminal should live better than the worst off innocent man. At a visceral level, this made sense to many, if not most Americans, particularly during the Great Depression. At least three factors led to the abandonment of this principle:

  1. Studies found that inmates given marketable skills and rehab were less likely to recidivate; thus, society was safer when they left prison.
  2. The rise in the number of inmates was making long prison sentences unrealistic, or at least less affordable.
  3. Other research, spurred by the civil rights movement, revealed the discrimination in arrests, sentencing, and incarceration gave rise to more scrutiny of arrest and prison practices and policies.

The liberal court had gone too far; it was out of balance. The scales of justice were tilted, the pendulum had swung too far left, and so the slow but steady swing back to center began. But now it has swung right, far right of center, and like the housing bubble or an overheated stock market, it needs to readjust. We are not strong if we are extreme in either direction, polarized and politicized. 

On the 4th, we celebrate E PLURIBUS UNUM: out of many (states or colonies), one (nation).

VOTE

When Pro-Life Becomes Anti-Life

In the early 1980s, I was director of women’s studies at a Midwestern university, chair of the local Rape Crisis Center and, I guess, an all-around social activist.  Pro-choice was my motto; even Reproductive Rights had a nice ring to it. We wore white when we marched, full of positive energy and hope for a better world…a world of tolerance, love and understanding. Pro-abortion—who could be pro-abortion?  It was an understandable option when all else failed but, as a preferred response to pregnancy, it was inappropriate. Certainly, if women made that choice, they should be able to accomplish it under the safest and most humane medical conditions possible. Some conditions were unquestionable: life of the mother, incest, and rape.

It was society’s job in my worldview to provide family planning, affordable contraception, and education to reduce the need for abortion. It is our collective responsibility to provide adequate support for the children we did bring into this world. Have we? Not successfully. Surely not without politicizing, moralizing, and just being damn judgmental and punitive.

I begged my sister feminists not to let the anti-abortion movement pin the pro-abortion label on us. We were more pro-life than they were. We wanted to take care of the living.  But the pro-choice movement morphed into the pro-abortion movement, and we have reaped the benefits of being out-maneuvered by a Supreme Court comprised of male misogynists and female impersonators! However, they took the high road, and we let them have it.

Now what?  It will take more than outrage and marches to stave off the right’s drive to end reproductive choice of any kind.  We need to retrieve the moral high ground, get some fundamentally objective, non-partisan judges back on the bench, and interpret the U.S. constitution according to the norms of the 21st century.

VOTE

*Buddhists have a story of four friends who worked together to accomplish good. We need to do that as well.

HEAT, CHIGGERS, AND MOSQUITOES

Why is it that we in the northern climes pine all through the grey days of winter for summer to arrive? Because as sure as hurricanes and heat waves, the dog days, motionless hot air masquerading as a wall, arrive along with buzzing, stinging insects. I cut my fingernails to the top of the nail bed so I can’t scratch up a case of impetigo, reversed my daily walk routine from early morning to late evening, and wash my face with sunscreen.

Ah, but it is the time of mangoes, watermelon, and blueberries. I learned how to make Greek yogurt to complement the season’s best fruit. I drink watermelon juice and grill mangos to eat with any meat or fish. This is not winter fare! In the winter, I eat thick soups, curries, and comfort foods that warm the soul and the body.

I got a case of chiggers. I didn’t know it until I was on my commute to work. Out of nowhere, the bottom inside of my right thigh began to tingle and then  itch mercilessly. I squirmed, I scratched, and I shook until the car wobbled. I pulled off the road, got out, and searched for “ants in my pants.”  I could see nothing. I could find nothing. That’s the malevolence of chiggers: they burrow under the skin and then strike without warning. They are the ninjas of the summer bug world.

I Googled my bug infestation and settled on chiggers and the perfect remedy: Chigger-xx, on sale at Walmart ($3.96), Walgreens ($4.16), and Amazon ($14.00). Walmart was out of stock. The staff at Walgreens never heard of it. Amazon it was, but I have to wait two days until my order arrives. In the meantime, it’s Benadryl, anti-itch cream, and calming cream. If they don’t work, I will coat my skin with clear nail polish and suffocate the little bastards.

When summer seems a disappointment and I long for a snowy white winter, I remember listening to my dad singing in his lovely tenor voice, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy; fish are jumping and the cotton is high.”* Then I go put some more cream on my leg.

*From Porgy & Bess

Trying to Make Sense out of America: Killing Babies/Punishing the Sex Act/Gun Fetishes

 I don’t want to regurgitate the avalanche of horrific news bombarding us day after day, second upon the following second. I can hardly breathe; unspecified terrors fill my sleep, and feelings of being slightly unhinged haunt me during my waking hours. I can’t imagine my readers want more of that!

COVID initially created a similar malaise, but I devised a strategy to cope. I sewed masks for family, friends, co-workers, and Native Americans on reservations across the country from where I live. I stayed home, cooked in, and gave up shopping forays as well as travel domestically and abroad. Then the vaccines arrived, masks were plentiful, and people were more conscious of following the six feet apart footprints on the floors of many of our local businesses. I could cope. I got my muchness back, or at least most of it.

Who could have imagined that surviving a global pandemic would be easier than managing today’s plethora of crazy? The New York Times recently suggested summer movies as a panacea for our collective problems . . . as if . . . . We are not recovering from the winter doldrums but facing the possible extinction of our planet.

Too intense? Sorry. This week I learned to make homemade Greek yogurt. Will it restore my faith in humanity, my sense of future and possibility? Not sure, but learning new things, keeping up with chores and responsibilities, and being kind all contribute to our mental health, and we can all do them. I once asked my dad, an orthodox Jew, whether Jesus was the Messiah, as my Catholic school friends insisted. He replied, “If everyone actually practiced the gospel of Jesus, we would have world peace. If we believe what is written in Leviticus 25, God wants the land to be looked after and for all people to have access to the earth’s resources . . .”

I’m not much on religion, but it seems to me that we need to learn some lessons if we are to survive. Sleep peacefully, live with purpose, and be kind.

Burning Books: The Strategy of Weak Minds to Control Ideas

Rebecca Knuth, the author of two books on book burnings and the destruction of libraries, believes that books are the targets because they “are the embodiment of ideas, and if you hold extreme beliefs, you cannot tolerate anything that contradicts those beliefs or is in competition with them.”*( https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/the-books-have-been-burning-1.887172)

The son of a close friend, and a long-time teacher, wrote this compelling letter to his superintendent and school board members. He agreed to let me integrate his words into my blog. I have, however, deleted information that identified his school district.

Superintendent and Board Members,

My name is Matt. I’m the parent of two young boys who attend a local elementary school. I’ve also been a teacher in this county since 1999. For seven of those years, I served as the Library Media Specialist.

One of the many things I learned as a Media Specialist is that media centers must serve readers of all ages, ability levels, cultures, backgrounds, personal interests, and identities. From fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose, a library collection needs to include a wide range of materials, including some topics and subjects that may not align with everyone’s personal beliefs.

As a Media Specialist myself, there were certain materials in my collection that did not necessarily align with my own philosophies. But it was not my place to decide what other people’s children may read, nor is it the place for any one parent or ten to do so.

There is a philosophy that books should be “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” As a mirror, we hope for our readers to see their own identities reflected in the pages of the book. As a window, we wish for readers to have a glimpse outside of their own world and into someone else’s. And as a sliding glass door, we encourage our readers to step even further from the safety of their own four walls and truly immerse themselves in someone else’s universe for a little while. When we limit our students’ access to books, we remove their ability to look out that window or to step through that sliding glass door. We allow readers to see only into our own comfortable mirrors. Worse, we prevent others from being able to see their own reflections.

While it’s fair to say that an entire library collection might not be deemed appropriate for every one of its readers, I think it’s also fair to argue that a small group of citizens should not be allowed to dictate what the vast majority of our students have access to.

As I’m sure these concerned parents already know, there is a Book Restriction Form available on every Media Center’s website that will block their own students’ access to the items they feel are inappropriate. They are welcome to encourage their friends, neighbors, and fellow community members to choose to complete these forms on behalf of their own children to whatever extent they feel is necessary. However, to demand that NO student should have access to certain books is censorship, plain and simple. It stands against the ideals of freedom, the

freedom to choose. It sends a message that says, “My reflection and my child are more important to protect than yours are.”

A librarian named Jo Godwin once quipped that “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” While it is, of course, not the intent of any Media collection to offend anyone, we also cannot control what might offend someone. But more importantly–and I cannot stress this enough–the voices of the few should not be allowed to dictate the children of the many.

I thank you for your time today. I trust that the right decision will be made for the students of [our] County School District.

Sincerely,

Adding my own thoughts on book burning would be superfluous. The recent spate of book burnings and textbook censorship should chill us all to the core. It’s one more of the heinous signs of a society, global and domestic, plummeting into chaos and darkness: mass shootings, rising crime, war in Ukraine, environmental degradation, and the roll-back of civil rights to name a few. To add an exclamation point: 11 people have been killed and 67 injured in mass shootings in the week since the children’s deaths in Uvalde.

The Tooth Fairy and Other Money-Making Schemes

My niece, who fled to Denmark after Trump won the 2016 election, proudly informed her extended family that her six-year-old son, Walter, had lost his first tooth—a rite of passage. In my best great aunt response, I asked her the going Tooth Fairy rate in Denmark. Her reply took me by surprise.

“More children with PDD-NOS, (Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) have trouble differentiating fact from fiction, so we stay away from unnecessary lying; there is no Tooth Fairy, and the kid (Walter) has expensive taste in toys.”

Her response triggered two reactions. My first was to ask myself what drove us to substitute celebrating the occasion—a first lost tooth—with the creation of the Tooth Fairy? My second was to recall a personal experience: introducing the Tooth Fairy to my g-d-grandson in Cambodia.

Without launching into a full-blown thesis on the origins and traditions of the Tooth Fairy, my research revealed that cultures throughout history have marked the time when a child loses a tooth. However, these rites were created for diverse reasons and in different ways.

In the U.S., the advent of the Tooth Fairy dates back only to 1927, and the giving of money is a uniquely American custom. In other cultures, it is more popular for a family to hand over the tooth to a mouse or a rat in the hope that the child’s adult teeth will be strong and sharp; or the parents hide it from witches who could use the tooth to control the child. In Spain, a mouse named Ratóncito Pérez is the equivalent of our Tooth Fairy.

Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans have positive feelings about the custom, and dentists promote it as a way to encourage healthy oral hygiene habits. One dentist I found on Google went so far as to suggest you tell your child that a healthy tooth will earn him or her more money from the Tooth Fairy than a decayed one.

On a visit to my g-d children in Phnom Penh, one of the young boys in the home, Sal Lee, lost his first tooth. Dentists back then, probably circa 1997, were scarce in Cambodia, and modern dentistry and dental hygiene were non-existent. I told Sal Lee about the Tooth Fairy and instructed him to put his tooth under his pillow, promising a visit from the magical creature. He did. That night, his father snuck in his room and exchanged a dollar’s worth of riels (four) for the tooth.

“Granma, Granma! She came! She brought me money!” He was so excited to have money to buy candy or a toy. Not only were there no Cambodian Tooth Fairies, but there was also no allowance or extra riels to spend for fun. This was a big deal for Sal Lee. I was quite pleased with myself for bringing such excitement to this little boy until . . .

Meng, his father, took me aside. “We have a problem,” he confided. “Sal Lee is planning to pull out all his teeth so that he can make more money.” It took a while, but with his father’s help, I convinced Sal Lee that the Tooth Fairy only left money for teeth that came out naturally—no riels were awarded for pulled teeth. I mollified him with a trip to the local toy shop.

Sal Lee has grown up and is studying to be a dentist. Maybe he has just found another way to make money from teeth.

Outside the Fence 

I’ve wanted to write a blog with this title ever since I discovered the grave of Reyele French outside the picket fence that encloses the headstones marking the rest of his Civil War Kentucky soldiers unit—his comrades in war and death. The refusal to bury Mr. French with his fellows was because he was African American. What could be a more poignant metaphor for the marginalization of a people? 

However, while in rural Maryland visiting an old friend in declining health, I drove by a colonial period log cabin, a slave house. It was dilapidated and abandoned, but the property owners were not allowed to demolish it.

I was surprised and disappointed not to find a historical marker or any attempt to protect the cabin or maintain the overgrown surrounding area.

Taking photos of the cabin as the sun set jolted my memory. I was reminded of Reyele French, also abandoned and mostly forgotten.

The history of the people who lived in the slave house and the “colored” soldiers who fought in our wars is our collective history, and we need to reclaim it, know it, own it, and work together for a better shared future.

Mask-less America

I gave in. I could no longer avoid a few short airline trips to celebrate a couple of special events and catch up with a few lifelong friends who are not doing well. The passing of Carole Ann just weeks after I took the plunge and flew to Florida to visit was proof enough that some things should not be delayed.

What a difference! In February, the airport was a sea of masked travelers, albeit many seemed unaware that their noses are part of their faces. Now it is mid-May, the omicron variant is surging, and I can count the number of masks worn at the airports and on planes on two hands.

Those few of us wearing masks bond immediately. We shake our heads in disbelief and occasionally share disparaging remarks about “Trumpies.”

“Thirteen dead in Buffalo” screams from the airport television monitors, replacing news about stock prices spiraling out of control and Ukrainians running for cover from Russian artillery. And yet, travelers around me all seem to be committed to behaving as if life is as normal as a ’60s family sitcom.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine a terminal full of ostriches clucking and flapping their long necks aimlessly. Or perhaps they’re looking for the sand

Lessons Learned on the Jungle Trail

Before I left Cambodia for Fiji, I booked a Lao village tour. I had remembered taking one with my mother and brother years ago on my first visit to Laos and wanted to recapture the experience. However, somehow, I missed the part where the tour company called it a leg-pumping trek and falsely assumed that I would be Jeeped to a village in Laos’ rugged interior as we had been in the 1990s.This tour was an adventure for someone else, although I think that even a twenty-something trekker would have found it daunting. During the hike, I worried most that I’d die from heat stroke or fall down and twist my ankle! That was if a snake didn’t bite me in the jungle. (My guide, a small, compact young man in his mid-twenties named Lajly, told me that snakes often fall out of the trees, but he reassured me that they would either be dead or too hot to bite.)

Lajly and I started out on a short trip across the Nam Khan River in a long dugout canoe. By luck, we came upon a small herd of elephants and their mahouts, who were leisurely preparing to spend the day taking tourists to other hamlets and over the steep, rocky trails in and around the jungle and rubber plantations. Riding elephants wasn’t an option on my tour, and neither was a special audience with a herd. I considered this a good omen for the rest of the day.

Not until I hiked to it did I realize that the Theung village of Lao Sung could only be reached by four hours of trekking on unshaded, rough dirt paths potholed from elephant tracks and dotted with large mounds of elephant poop. The temperature was close to one hundred degrees, and the only shade came from the leaves of elephant ear plants—luckily, a plant quite abundant in Laos.

As Lajly was cutting leaves for us to carry like umbrellas, he related an old Lao fable. The story went that a merchant was traveling by elephant to Southeast Asia. When they reached Laos, the elephant told his master that he was old and could not go any further. It was time for him to die. His master, who had great affection for the beast, buried him in the jungle, and the elephant ear plant grew from his ear. His eyes twinkling, Lajly said, “That’s why so many elephant ear plants grow in Laos.”

Occasionally, we would duck out of the sun by walking alongside the edge of a rubber plantation or cool off by crossing a stream on a rickety foot bridge made of twigs and vines. But mostly we walked in the unrelenting sun as it rose high above us in the sky. It was late morning by the time we reached the village; rather than explore anything, I collapsed on a bench, closed my eyes, and didn’t move for a very long time.

The village, with its bamboo huts and dirt yards, seemed intensely poor. The only inhabitants besides the goats and chickens were very young children—who appeared to spend their days unsupervised, running barefoot over the dirt—and very old women with gnarly hands and bright birdlike eyes that squinted from faces of wrinkled leather. We ate a simple homemade lunch prepared by an elderly couple whom I assumed were husband and wife. While we sat at a picnic table in front of a glorified shack, two little girls peeked out from the doorway to giggle and watch us; the apparent husband smoked on a homemade bamboo water pipe. Embarrassed by the poverty, I took off the necklace I was wearing, a colorful piece of costume jewelry, and presented it to our hostess. Although her toothless smile was shy, I think it was sincere.

Unfortunately, there was no shortcut back to the river, so we started walking down the sun-flooded trail at high noon. There was no Jeep service to call, no elephant to rescue me. Eventually, Lajly turned off the road, entering the jungle. “What are we doing? Are we there?” I asked, hoping we were close to the river. But no, Lajly was cutting through the jungle to get us out of the sun. I ignored the mosquitoes and did my best to keep hiking, even though I was unbearably hot. Lajly stopped and said, “This way; we have to climb down in order to reach the waterfall and the river.” What way? All I saw was a black hole in the ground! “Climb down? Climb how?” I squealed as I looked into the dark abyss.

“It’s okay,” he replied, trying to reassure me. “There’s a ladder.” I peered in closer. There was a rope ladder, the skinny wooden rungs about fifteen feet apart, descending further than the light. “I’ll go down first,” he said. “Then I can help you.” What choice did I have? I could turn back to the sun-drenched trail, stay where I was and get bitten to death by mosquitoes, or go down the rope.

He directed my shaking foot down to each rung, while my hands clutched the cables with a death grip to slowly lower myself. At the base of the rope ladder, Lajly helped my feet touch solid ground and grinned at me. “Are we there?” I asked. “Close, close. It is just a little further,” he answered. “Take my photo,” I demanded with a false bravado—my jeans were soaked with sweat. Close was still too far, but I was okay, and finally we arrived at the falls. Tourists were swimming in the cold pool or sitting on the deck drinking beer and wine. I lay down flat on a small deck off the base of the waterfall, trying to relieve my aching back. There was no relief, no euphoria—only dull shock. I fell asleep. When I awoke fifteen minutes later, or maybe it was an hour, I was disoriented. When I tried to stand, my legs cramped from my hips to my toes. I was dehydrated. 

Lajly gave me a bottle of water and assurances that the river and our boat were just a few paces away beyond the brush. Next time, I will read the fine print.

This story is excerpted from The Wanderer.